One simple way to increase visibility of your scientific publications

Background: As well as publishing in ecology and evolutionary biology, I am also interested in how that publishing industry works. There is a clear need to disseminate information as widely as possible in order to accelerate the rate of testing of new theories and discovery of new information. However, some publishing models (and some publishing companies) hide scientific research away so that most people do not have access to that work. Self-archiving is a way for researchers to make available certain forms of their research without breaking copyright (which is almost always handed over to the publishers).

What I did: I reviewed some of the literature on the benefits of self-archiving, in terms of the access to the general public and what has become known as the “open access advantage”: papers that are more openly available are cited more. I also show that over half of all ecology and evolution papers could have been archived in a format that was almost identical to their final, finished format without breaking copyright. I then highlight key methods that researchers can use to self-archive their work: publishing through institutional repositories, third party websites, or self-creation of online portfolios using online tools.

Importance: Self-archiving has the potential to open up research (often funded by taxpayers) to a far wider audience, and this is an important step towards making research more accessible to the general public.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled ““Going green”: self-archiving as a means for dissemination of research output in ecology and evolution”, was published in the journal Ideas in Ecology and Evolution in 2013. You can find this paper for free at the publisher.

How helpful are urban ponds for biodiversity?

pond-84855_1280Background: Urban ecosystems are becoming increasingly important as areas for biodiversity conservation, as we begin to recognise the importance of preserving natural habitat within heavily modified environments for both wildlife and human well being. Urban ponds are a key part of this network of habitats within cities, and are commonly found in parks, gardens and industrial estates. In fact, there are an estimated 2.5-3.5 million garden ponds in the UK alone, which could have an area the size of Lake Windermere!

What we did: I was invited to submit a review of the biodiversity value of urban ponds. This later expanding beyond simply describing biodiversity patterns to include the ecological processes that generate those patterns. I describe a wide-ranging set of potential negative impacts on urban pond biodiversity, including invasive species, mismanagement, pollution, and habitat destruction.  However, I also took great care to highlight the benefits of these habitats in terms of their use in controlling stormwater, their role in local aesthetics, and the way in which they provide access to nature in inner cities. These ponds can be a fantastic resource if managed well.

Importance: Research on urban water bodies has been growing, and this review highlights both the work that has been done up to now and the gaps in our current knowledge that should be filled in the future.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “The ecology and biodiversity of urban ponds”, was published in the journal WIREs Water in 2014. You can find this paper at the publisher’s website or for free at Figshare.

Image credit: noitulos,, Public Domain.

The impact of environmental warming on Odonata – a review [paper summary]

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “The impact of environmental warming on Odonata – a review”, was published in the International Journal of Odonatology in 2012. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Background: Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) are thought to have evolved in the tropics and possess a number of adaptations that allow them to exist at higher latitudes.  This makes them interesting to investigate in the context of climate change, since these adaptations might facilitate a response to increasing temperatures.

What we did: This paper is a review of the literature looking at the ecology and evolution of Odonata in the context of climate change.  A number of areas are discussed including distributional changes, phenological shifts, evolutionary responses, the effects of drought and the physiological effects of temperature.

Importance: A large amount of work has been carried out on the influence of temperature on the biology of Odonata over the past 50-60 years.  This has come from a variety of loosely-related fields and our review brings this together to provide an overview of the state-of-play concerning our understanding of the topic.

Image credit: Patricia H Schuette, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

Damselflies change shape under climate change, only if they are close to their limits

Background: A species’ shape and size can tell you a lot about how the animals are doing in their environment.  For example, species tend to get larger at cooler temperatures, a phenomenon known as “Bergmann’s rule”, and they tend to have greater dispersal traits where they need to move further (such as locations where habitat patches are further apart).

What we did: I was interested in shape and size varied between a species that is not moving north under climate change (Pyrrhosoma nymphula, shown above) and a species that has been expanding its range into Scotland (Coenagrion puella). I collected animals at a series of sites from southern England to Scotland for both species.  The results showed that there was little consistent variation in size or dispersal traits in P. nymphula but that C. puella showed increases in size and the relative investment in the thorax and abdomen (indicative of greater flight ability).  These results, taken together, suggest that there has been selection for dispersal traits in the expanding C. puella.

Importance: The presence of traits that could facilitate response to climate change, such as enhanced dispersal to increase colonisation of new habitats, could make the difference between a species thriving or failing under climate change.  This is particularly important for species that rely on aquatic habitats for their life cycle, because water resources are predicted to be under increasing threat in the future.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Latitudinal variation in morphology in two damselfly species with contrasting range dynamics”, was published in the European Journal of Entomology in 2008. You can find this paper for free online at the publisher.

Image credit: Thomas Bresson, CC BY 2.0,

Damselflies develop “spotty wings” when it gets cold

Background:  Darwin argued that sexual selection (i.e. the competition between males for females, and the females choosing from among competing males) was as important as natural selection (e.g. predators catching the slowest prey) in driving the evolution of traits. Calopteryx splendens, the banded demoiselle, is a fascinating case of this sexual selection. Males have pigmented bands on their wings which they use to signal to females. Females have been shown to prefer males with bigger bands. Further research demonstrated that the substance that produces these spots is the same substance, melanin, that drives the invertebrate immune response. The male damselflies are, therefore, advertising the strength of their immune system to females in an “honest” display.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 17.25.05What we did: I was interested in the extent to which the wingspot size varied with latitude, since melanin production is strongly tied to temperature.  I had samples of C. splendens from two sites, one in Bedfordshire and another in Northumbria (near to the furthest north site where the banded demoiselle is found).  These two populations showed marked differences in the size of the area of pigment with far more pigment in the south, as would be expected if temperature was a limiting factor. You can see this variation in the picture on the right, which shows a Bedfordshire demoiselle on top and a Northumberland demoiselle on the bottom. The species actually changes from having a discrete band to many animals having only a “spot” in the northern population.

Importance: This was the first demonstration of geographical variation in wingspot size and suggested that ecological (i.e. temperature) processes were influencing wingspot size in addition to evolutionary (i.e. female choice) processes.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Variation in the wingspot size and asymmetry of Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens (Harris, 1792)”, was published in the Journal of the British Dragonfly Society in 2009. You can find this paper on Figshare.

Image credit: Paul Ritchie, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

Climate change interferes with our use of animals to judge water quality

Background: Water quality is measured in a number of different ways: measuring levels of chemicals and pollutants, measuring temperature and other physical parameters, and monitoring the animals and plants that are living in the water. The theory is that the animals and plants living in the water have certain requirements of their habitat (particularly a need for clean water) and so you can use the presence of certain “fussy” animal groups as a proxy for water quality. The problem is that, under climate change, species are moving around as environmental conditions – especially temperature – changes.  This means that changes in the animal and plant communities at a given site might give the appearance of an increase in water quality while actually the arrival of new species is simply the result of climate change.

What we did: I analysed an extensive dataset of British dragonfly and damselfly (known collectively as the “Odonata”) sightings to look for a pattern of geographical movement since 1960.  Dragonflies and damselflies are an important group in biological water quality monitoring, as they are particularly sensitive to pollution.  I found that the patterns of water quality that would be detected using Odonata at a generic site would appear to change over time with the changes in Odonata communities, independent of any changes in water quality.

Importance: Biological communities are used extensively in the monitoring of freshwaters and this research emphasises the need to take distributional shifts that occur as a result of climate change into account when using this method. It is likely that water quality is improving, with better treatment of wastewater and better enforcement of environmental regulation, but accurate monitoring is the key to continuing improvement. Secondly, this paper demonstrates once more the fact that Odonata are responding to climate change.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “The impact of climate-induced distributional changes on the validity of biological water quality metrics”, was published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment in 2010. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0,

British dragonflies are emerging earlier in the year under climate change

Background: A variety of responses to climate change have been detected in a variety of taxa.  Among these is a change in phenology – the timing of the life cycle (like the emergence of an adult dragonfly from its larval case as shown on the right). Since some species use temperature as a cue for when to develop, as the environment warms there is a signal of earlier development in these species.

What we did: I analysed an extensive dataset of sightings of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) over a 50-year period in the UK.  These 450,000 sightings were of around 40 species and provided a detailed record of dates on which different Odonata species were emerging from their aquatic habitats.  I found that there was a significant shift towards earlier emergence which was consistent with that observed in terrestrial species.  I further demonstrated that there was a difference between two groups of species that varied in what stage they over-wintered.  Those species that sat in the water over winter as eggs did not show a response to climate change while those that were larvae over winter did show a response.  I infer from this that the response to climate change is caused by a decline in mortality associated with cooler temperatures in the more vulnerable larval stages.

Importance: As I mention above, a number of studies have demonstrated an effect of climate change on the phenology of animals and plants.  This study showed that the signal was present even for animals that occupy aquatic habitats, suggesting that temperature changes influences aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in much the same way.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled “Historical changes in the phenology of British Odonata are related to climate”, was published in the journal Global Change Biology in 2007 (my first paper!). You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Sally Crossthwaite, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

Why I blog (occasionally!)

There has been a lot of discussion over the merits of academics blogging (see here, here, here, here, here and here). The positive arguments seem to be that:

  1. It’s good outreach, allowing a flexible platform for communication of science
  2. Blogs allow rapid responses and reporting on research
  3. Online profiles are important and blogs can be a strong foothold in internet-space
  4. Writing for a non-technical audience is good practice for science communication

The negative arguments seem to be that:

  1. It doesn’t count in academic terms (it’s not a paper, a grant, or a lecture)
  2. Sometimes tenure panels might see blogging as a waste of time
  3. There’s the danger of “upsetting” people.

Well I think it counts (even if my colleagues disagree), we don’t have tenure in the UK, and I don’t mind upsetting people, so there’s no good reason for me not to blog! I was letting it drop off a bit, but all this discussion has encouraged me to start up again. One of the problems is that I lacked a blogging strategy, which meant that I only shared what I (A) found interesting, and (B) found time to write about. Most of my problem was that I found interesting topics and spent too much time on too few, too niche issues. That’s going to change. Here’s the plan:

  • I’m going to post lay summaries of each of my publications.  That’s 25 to start with, and I’ll add more as I go along. I see that as a vital part of science communication, and I’ll link them back to my publications page on my website.
  • I have recently been immersing myself in Twitter which has led to my discovering a lot more interesting (and sometimes plain weird) papers and articles. This will be a key (near-bottomless) source for new ideas, but I’ll try to keep to a theme.
  • The main topicsare going to be
    • General science things
    • Entomology news and views
    • Education and technology
    • Specific posts about my research
  • Finally, I’m going to write in short form now – no more monthly long reads. 500 words max, and always with an image or video. It was the length and detail that was killing my productivity, and nobody reads those longreads, anyway!

I am hoping that that is going to provide a sustainable flow of content over the next few months, and I’ll reevaluate at Christmas.  Happy reading!

Image credit: Cortega9, CC-BY-SA 3.0,

My first preprint submission

My last post was about open access – making sure that your work is freely available after publication. However, I have also been experimenting with preprints – posting articles prior to publication for open peer review. PeerJ is one publishing model that has been gaining traction recently. They also offered free publication for a trial window and have a monkey as their mascot, so how could I resist? My paper, “Continental variation in wing pigmentation in Calopteryx damselflies is related to the presence of heterospecifics” is available now (with all the data used in the paper) at the PeerJ preprint site, while the manuscript is in review at the PeerJ journal. I thought it worthwhile reflecting on the experience and my growing support for this idea.Read More »

Be sensible about open access, but it’s still a good thing!

In a recent paper published in Trends in Plant Science, Anurag Angrawal presents a few “reasons to be skeptical of open-access publishing” (Angarwal, 2014) in order to stimulate debate over the current open access (OA) publishing model. Ironically this is behind a paywall so I thought I would summarise the content, which is more reasonable than the title suggests. Here is the gist of the four problems:Read More »